It’s premiere night on Fox, and the new season of the network’s big singing competition opens with assaultive graphics (BIG! METAL! LETTERS!) and a lot of bombast. The announcer promises us that this coast-to-coast talent search will be the biggest one ever. Aerial shots show mobs of aspiring performers lining up around the country. Media clips show that the nation can’t stop talking about the contest (at least on local Fox affiliates). Simon Cowell tells us that he is looking for a star. And for two hours, a parade of singers good and bad show off their vocals and life stories as anxious families wait in the wings.
Did I oversleep until January? No, it’s September and it’s The X Factor. But what is the reason exactly that this show, whose producers have assured us is not just a second American Idol, is not a second American Idol?
Before you get all literal and jump on me, I know the technical, definitional reasons. There are younger kids. There are groups. There are old people—some of them nearly as old as I am. There is a bigger prize. There were—at least until the mid-premiere departure of Cheryl Cole—more British regional accents.
But anyone who creates a show called The X Factor must know that a successful work of entertainment is defined by its x factor: the distinctive, intangible sine qua non, the personality that makes it itself and nothing else. The voice that separates it from, ah, The Voice.
Judging solely from the first night, that distinguishing element is bigness. No sorry, BIGNESS. LOUDNESS! If The X Factor were a person, it would be a guy on the Internet who keeps USING THE CAPS LOCK to emphasize that what he has to say IS VERY IMPORTANT. The good and bad auditioners perform in an arena filled with screaming fans. (Fans? Well, spectators.) The B-roll includes glory shots of expansive American vistas. The sound effects suggested that a squadron of Blue Angels was doing a flyover past your ears after every commercial break. The graphics included, at one point, a massive X crashing into the Earth, implying that the mass extinction of the dinosaurs was a Simon Cowell production.
If the plan for The X Factor is to get over on production values, mission accomplished: it absolutely conveys the feeling of employing the best equipment Fox can buy. If the point was to offer us something we’re not getting anywhere else on TV, though, mission not yet accomplished, at least after the first two hours. The overall impression the first X Factor audition round gave was of a singing-only America’s Got Talent pressed into an Idol format, except on a bigger, more bombastic scale. And that scale didn’t always serve the show: the roaring of the gladiatorial crowd during the auditions seemed to sap the exchanges of the intimacy of Idol’s tryouts, and it often felt as if the judges were performing more than judging. (Even the bad performances were showier, such a the dude who dropped trou, prompting Cowell to act outraged that anyone would think a show of his would reward obnoxious auditions.)
As for the panel itself, it was interesting to see Simon Cowell get upstaged as the resident tough-love truth-teller by L.A. Reid. It’s not that Cowell was defanged last night, but I don’t think he was helped by having the crowd, which cheered over his praise and empathy and, when he tore into someone, cheered and laughed as if they were at a Simon Cowell concert. (Surprisingly, after all the buzz over her return to TV, Paula Abdul largely faded into the background, beyond her flasher-induced sickness.) And in the X Factor spirit of bigness, the audition sequences were long—sometimes overlong—and often accented with a lot of cross-cutting, to the judges, to audience members, to family members, to smarmy host Steve Jones watching on a bank of monitors. We get it, X Factor. You own a lot of cameras.
Of course, a show like this has its personality defined by its choice of performers, and if The X Factor finds the right mix of performers for us to invest in, that will make the show. But if one thing rubbed me wrong about its debut, it was the feeling of a show declaring itself a mass cultural phenomenon by fiat. It’s hard to remember, but American Idol wasn’t a pre-anointed hit when it started in summer 2002; it started relatively small and allowed the audience to feel that it had made the show big by embracing it. In a way, this was even true of The Voice, which was not counted a surefire hit when it launched. The X Factor seemed to arrive declaring that we already loved it: why else would it have such big names, such big sets and—as its judges’ omnipresent Pepsi containers declared—such big sponsors?
Oh, would you look at that? It’s Pepsi, not Coke. I guess there is something different about The X Factor after all.